Prince William and longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton are finally getting hitched. William's father, Prince Charles, released a statement on Tuesday announcing the couple's engagement. The royal wedding, naturally, raises all kinds of questions for the Explainer.
Kate Middleton will be among the first commoners to marry someone in line for the throne. If William had to marry nobility, would he have much of a pool to choose from?
Not really. There are only a few hundred female members of the British aristocracy. A handful are directly related to William, and many more are too old, too young, or already married. If commoners had been off limits to William, he probably would have had to turn to royals on the continent, like many of his forebears.
There are three kinds of British people: royals, nobles, and commoners. The official royal family comprises only the queen's direct relatives—her children, grandchildren in the male line, and some cousins.
The much larger nobility includes those with a direct ancestor who was granted a peerage by the monarch at some point in history. In the old days, if someone performed a useful service to the king, like helping him conquer Aquitaine or squelching a Scottish rebellion, he would reward them with a grand title like duke, marquess, earl, viscount, or baron. The title would pass to male descendants indefinitely. Those descendants are today's nobility.
The vast majority of British subjects are mere commoners like Middleton.
Is there any way to join the ranks of the nobility, other than through birth or marriage?
Sort of. These days, the queen hands out life peerages to British citizens who distinguish themselves in political office or public service. They take the title baron or baroness and earn the right to sit in the House of Lords. (Membership was a birthright for hereditary peers until the 1999 House of Lords Act.) A life peerage does not pass to the baron's or baroness's heirs.
The queen does have hereditary peerages to distribute, if she so chooses. When a member of the nobility dies without heirs, his title reverts to the crown, and the queen can offer it to someone else. The dukedom of York, for example, has an uncanny tendency to revert to the crown. Ever since Edward of Norwich, the second Duke of York, died at the legendary battle of Agincourt in 1415, Dukes of York have made a regular habit of expiring without sons or ascending to the throne themselves. Prince Andrew, who assumed the dukedom upon his marriage to Sarah Ferguson in 1986, has kept the tradition going—he has two daughters and no sons.
The only reliable way to get your hands on a hereditary peerage these days is to marry a member of the royal family. There has been speculation that the queen will dub Prince William Duke of Cambridge on the day of his wedding or shortly before. Upon her marriage, Kate Middleton, daughter of an online retailing mogul, would become her Royal Highness Princess Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.